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What’s a USB key good for? Carrying files from one computer to another? If you think that’s all, then you’re missing out. USB thumb drives can be used in almost all the ways a regular hard drive can, including storing all sorts of useful apps. We think that this presents a great opportunity for savvy PC users to keep their favorite programs at hand, no matter what computer they end up using.
In this article we’re going to show you a number of different loadouts for USB “tools.” With these on hand you’ll be able to do everything from checking your email to recovering data off a damaged hard drive on any computer you find yourself sitting in front of. We'll also show you a couple of cool tricks, like how to run a virtual, encrypted drive from a thumb drive, so gather up some of those spare USB keys you have lying around and read on.
Start up TrueCrypt by running the executable from the directory you extracted to, and click on the Create Volume button. This will allow you to create a Truecrypt volume, an encrypted file which will contain all of your data. Once the TrueCrypt Volume Creation Wizard pops up, choose Create an encrypted file container and click next.
At the next screen, choose Standard TrueCrypt volume. You could pick Hidden TrueCrypt volume, which allows you to create a sort of decoy encrypted drive in case someone tortures you for your password or something, but since we’re more worried about petty thieves than the KGB, we should be alright with a normal volume.
On the screen marked “Volume Location,” click Select File… You’re then prompted to pick a file name and location for your volume. If you’re feeling especially sneaky you can disguise the file as something else, but (again) the encryption will almost certainly be enough security, so we just called our file “Portable Office.”
You’ll then be treated to a screen of encryption options. You don’t need to understand this stuff, the default settings will work just fine. After that, you get to select the volume size. This must be large enough to accommodate all the apps we’re going to put on this disk. We recommend making it at least one or two gigabytes.
Now all you have to do is wait for the encryption to complete, then mount the encrypted drive. To do that, go back to the main TrueCrypt screen and click Select File… and choose the volume you just created. If you uncheck Never save history it will allow you to skip having to load the volume every time you want to access your USB key. Next, click on the letter you want to assign to the virtual drive you’re about to mount and click Mount.
If you go back to your My Computer screen, you’ll now see a new drive. This is our virtual, encrypted drive. We can use it exactly like a normal drive, and when we’re done we just unmount it (or exit TrueCrypt) and anything in that drive is completely inaccessible to anyone until we mount it again by inputting the passphrase. Now that’s security.
When choosing apps for our portable office USB key, we should keep in mind the two main advantages that the portable office is meant to provide. The first advantage is that it allows us to make sure that we always have the apps we want on hand, even if we’re on a strange computer. Based on this, we want to include any apps that we find useful that might not be on any given machine.
The second advantage to a portable office USB key is that it allows us to keep all our settings intact, no matter what computer we use. Because of this, it’s wise to include apps like Portable Firefox. Even though almost any computer you use will have a web browser, bringing your own version of Firefox with you means that you can always have access to things like your bookmarks, plugins and saved passwords.
That said, which apps you should include on your thumb drive is a matter of personal preference. We’ll include a list of some that we consider essential and leave the rest up to you.
Read on to find out what apps we recommend!
If you’re much of computer user at all, you’ve surely heard of OpenOffice.org, the open source alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite. It may lack a little bit of the polish of the MS suite, but at zero dollars it’s a hell of a deal, and it’s preconfigured as a Portable App. OpenOffice.org is included in the full PortableApps package, or you can download it
if you got one of the smaller packages.
Here we’re grouping up the three portable offerings from Mozilla:
. Firefox is, of course, the browser you know and love. As we discussed earlier, the main advantage to having Firefox on your drive is that you have options to all your personal settings anywhere you go. Thunderbird and Sunbird combined give you Outlook-style email and schedule management. If you’re a webmail user, you can go ahead and leave these two off the drive.
Anyone who does much instant messaging knows that being on a computer with no IM client feels like being cut off from your lifeline. Fortunately, Pidgin—the popular multi-service messaging client—is available in
. At the PortableApps Pidgin page (where you can download the .paf.exe) there are also links to encryption plugins, allowing you to keep your correspondence secure, no matter where you are.
Torrents are great; they’re fast, stable and plentiful. The only problem? You have to have a BitTorrent client to download them, and most non-power users don’t. But that’s not really a problem when you can bring your own client with you, and although it doesn’t come preconfigured as a Portable App, our favorite client
works just fine installed on a thumb drive.
And speaking of torrents, it's time for our second USB tool: the media stick. Read on to find out more about how to play any media anywhere.
Google’s Picasa is our weapon of choice when it comes to organizing, viewing and touching up photos. By including it on our thumb drive media tool, we’re insuring that it’ll be a snap to retrieve family photos off of mom’s old machine.
There’s no PortableApps version of Picasa. Instead, download the installer from the Picasa website and install it following the instructions for adding new apps.
Speaking of pictures, we want some way to edit photos and images for our less technologically-forward friends and relatives. Sure, Photoshop’s nice, but it’s expensive and at about 300MB is an absolute heifer when compared to GIMP’s svelte profile.
GIMP is available as a PortableApp right here .
Next, we'll put together a tool to keep PCs in top condition.
A lot of times, being the computer nerd of the family means being the de facto computer technician. When it comes to time to play repairman, there are a couple of simple apps that can help to clear up the vast majority of normal users’ computer problems. By combining these apps onto one convenient USB thumb drive, you can fix your loved ones' maltreated computers without even breaking a sweat (or connecting to the internet).
Spybot - Search & Destroy
is one of the best malware-removal tools available right now. The program has an excellent set of features, is upgraded very frequently, and, of course, is totally free. If someone you know has a computer that’s gotten slow, The first (and sometimes only) step in your repair efforts should be to install Spybot on their system –to both clear off existing malware and help steer them clear of it in the future. With programs like this, it's best just to keep the installer on the USB thumb drive, rather than actually installing to it.
You’d be amazed at the crap some people will install on their machine. If you’re trying to clear up space or get someone’s machine to run faster, the
does a better job and is easier to use than the traditional Windows Add/Remove Software tool. One of its handiest features is a so-called “Hunter Mode,” which hides Revo Uninstaller and makes it so that a contextual opens for over any program window you click on, giving you the option to uninstall or stop the program from running at startup. In short, this allows you to uninstall applications without having to know a single thing about them.
Recuva is a compact, simple undelete tool. It’s small, and doesn’t require installation, so we can just drop the executable on our thumb drive and run it from there. When run, it can scan your system for all deleted files, or only those which match certain search terms.
We should note that recovery tools like these are far from guaranteed to find your deleted files, so don’t go promising your friend that you’ll be able to get back anything they’ve ever deleted. Still, it’s worth a shot.
PC Inspector File Recovery
Now it’s time for the big guns. If one of the drives on your system goes down, but your Windows drive is intact you can use File Recovery to attempt to salvage the data. File Recovery must be installed on a disk other than the target disk, and runs in windows. It provides a simple to use but powerful GUI for recovering damaged or deleted data.
What about the worst-case scenario, though? What if the drive containing Windows goes down and you can’t get past the boot screen? That’s where Knoppix comes in. Using your new USB tool, you can boot directly to Knoppix, a Unix distro that we’ll use for data recovery. This is generally accomplished by pressing f12 as your system boots and selecting the USB drive, but this varies by BIOS.
Once you’re in Knoppix, minimize any windows that opened automatically and check out the desktop. You should see icons representing all the partitions in your system. Click on the icons to explore them one at a time until you figure out which one represents your Windows partition. Hopefully, Knoppix will be able to explore and retrieve data from your corrupted drive. If it cannot, your best bet is to send it to a data recovery specialist.
Kepp reading, because we've got one more tool for you to try out!
Enter the bolded commands, in this order:
This will show you a list of disks connected to the PC. Determine which disk is the thumb drive you want to install from, based on its size. Remember its disk number.
Select Disk # (Use the number from the previous step)
Create Partition Primary
Select Partition 1
Assign (Write down the letter assigned to the key)